Renowned athlete and two-time Olympic gold medalist, Haile Gebreselassie recently condemned the treatment of clergyman Abba Girma, (or if need be the treatment of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church) in his reaction to the video that shows an exorcism involving Getie Wamie – another world renowned athlete who hails from Ethiopia.
Leaving what consequences it has on the Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF) and the management of the athletes, I share Haile’s concern about the video being made public, which is against the principle of confidentiality.
However, with all due respect to the national hero, I have a professional duty to respond to his comments concerning the appropriateness of the church’s treatment. During the interview he had with a local radio station, I heard him saying with all certainty that Gete’s case is a psychiatric problem and hence needs a psychiatrist not a treatment of other kind like the one in the video.
This statement made me consider two things; first, he has neither done any form of diagnosis, nor does he have the professional training to do so and give such a blatant comment on the condition of Gete.
Second, there is no scientific evidence that claim the church’s treatments in Ethiopia are not effective.
I think the first argument is clear – an athlete knows and is credible if he talks about athletics, but not psychiatry. So, I would leave it to the reader to judge if he is a credible source to talk about mental health issues.
Second, he mentioned that there are no ‘demons’, and he characterized the argument as a false belief. Whatever reason he had to say this, it is his statement which is a false belief. I think he was showing off that he knows the science of psychiatric problems. Good for him, but as I understand the concept of knowing – it does not, by any sense of the word, mean demeaning other people’s belief and culture.
Every society and culture has a concept of what health is and what not. Psychiatry alone (which is based on the biomedical model – the Anglo-European understanding of mental illness) has reportedly been criticized by different researchers for its inadequacy to respond to the diversified needs of the diversified clients and at times for its claim of universality of its mental disorders nosology and treatment etc. Such criticisms are now on the agenda because psychiatrists in developed countries such as Germany have failed to deliver effective treatments for migrants and/or refugees with unique understanding of mental illnesses (which by the way one is the belief that MH is the result of demonic possession).
Arthur Kleinman in his book rethinking psychiatry (1980) wrote that treatment of mental illness is not like treatment of physical problems. It is not like fixing a fractured bone or something else. It needs a full trust, participation, faith and decision making of the client. It requires that the clients’ idea about his problem, his illness, the idea of his family members or significant others concerning the illness should be taken into account. In the biomedical model, you cure the disorder and the disease, but in other cultures you heal the illness—which also incorporates what illness is for the client.
Therefore, to say church treatments do not work or there are no such things as spirits is just nonsense. I am not arguing that there are demons. I have not seen any. But as long as there are people who believe that there are, as a health professional, one has to take that perspective into account.
As a final remark, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has to take active role in making the treatments delivered at the church effective and in keeping treatments confidential for the sake of those who come to the church in search of healing.
Baye B. Asfaw
M.A in clinical Psychology
MSc, in international Health (Candidate)